Duke walked in the rest of college basketball’s shoes on Saturday, living life without Zion Williamson.
That the No. 1-ranked Blue Devils won anyway is a testament to their talent. That Duke came back in the second half, with Williamson out with an eye injury, to win, 80-78, at No. 13 Florida State and quiet the Tucker Center crowd is a testament to its toughness.
“With the crowd like that as much as it is against us,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said, “I feel like it prepares us for moments at the end of the year when we just need to come together as a team no matter what’s happening out there.”
This wasn’t just one player Duke was missing. The 6-7 Williamson is playing like a first-team, all-American who has a good chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA Draft. He averages 20.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He leads Duke with 31 steals and is second on the team with 26 blocked shots.
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“It’s a big loss,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “For this game, are you kidding? Especially with the athleticism we were facing.”
Williamson was injured with 1:26 left in the first half when Florida State guard Trent Forrest gouged his face with his fingers, hitting him in both eyes while trying to defend the bigger Williamson. The contact to the left eye was the most damaging, leaving Williamson with double vision.
It never cleared during the second half, and he didn’t play after halftime.
The Blue Devils (14-1, 3-0 ACC) initially didn’t fare well without him, falling behind 61-56 after leading by as many as 10 points in the first half.
Freshmen starters RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones were without their fourth freshman starter in Williamson. But the group pulled together on both ends over the final 10 minutes when the lead changed hands 11 times and there were five ties.
“With the trust we have,” Jones said, “we knew with the trust we have in each other we could get the win.”
Barrett finished with 32 points while Reddish had 23. Jones struggled with 4 of 13 shooting to only score eight points. But he had six assists and three steals while playing all 40 minutes and committing just one turnover.
Reddish came through in the biggest moment, hitting a 3-pointer with 0.8 of a second left to give Duke the win.
“He and RJ kind of kept us in it,” Krzyzewski said. “With Tre making sure we were getting the ball to those two guys.”
The experience of winning in a hostile environment, without their best player, will serve Duke well as the season progresses. While Krzyzewski said Williamson’s vision had cleared after the game and hope was strong that he would play Monday night against Syracuse, the Blue Devils have learned how to adjust with him unavailable.
“It was definitely different with him not out there,” Barrett said. “We had to rebound more, for sure. We were tough. We found a way.”
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton was impressed by how the young Duke team has progressed so quickly in 15 games to handle such a situation.
“They’re going to continue to keep getting better as well, that’s a scary thought,” Hamilton said. “I know what we’re doing with some of our inexperienced players and I’m watching their progress but they’re playing at an unheard-of high cliff. There’s no telling how good they’re going to be come March and they’re to be commended for the outstanding job they’re doing. They’re putting themselves in a pretty good position.”